Hope returns to Detroit, Cincinnati

Originally Published: May 12, 2006
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

Where does the time go?

The 2006 season is nearly a quarter over already, and not everything has gone the way it was anticipated.

Contenders are in the cellar, also-rans are leading the division and a host of players are either overachieving or underachieving.

As the season approaches the quarter pole, here's a look at the most surprising developments:

MOST SURPRISING AL TEAM: Detroit Tigers
After his hiatus, many wondered if Jim Leyland still had the proverbial fire in the belly to manage. The first six weeks of the season seem to have pretty much cleared that up.

Leyland is engaged, all right, and the Tigers are reaping the benefits. They're healthier than they were a year ago, and the bullpen has yielded great results, led by fireballing rookie Joel Zumaya. The Tigers lead the AL in pitching, with an impressive 1.18 WHIP, while Kenny Rogers has given the rotation some stability and experience.

The Tigers, who only three years ago endured a 119-loss season, haven't had a winning season in 13 years and haven't finished higher than third in the standings since 1991.

It's tough to see them staying with Chicago and Cleveland for the entire season, but for a change, the Tigers have a direction -- and this time, it's forward.

MOST SURPRISING NL TEAM: Cincinnati Reds
In a lot of ways, Cincinnati is the National League version of Detroit: a once great baseball city gone to seed over the last decade, the victim of market size and plenty of regrettable decisions.

Like Detroit, Cincinnati has a new ballpark. And suddenly, there's reason to go to games again.

Two spring-training additions have helped key the turnaround: starter Bronson Arroyo and infielder Brandon Phillips. Credit new general manager Wayne Krivsky for the moves.

There's more work to be done here, as the starting rotation still needs reinforcement. But if Eric Milton returns from the DL and figures out how to keep the ball from going out of Great American Ballpark, the front three of Arroyo, Milton and Aaron Harang (5-1) is formidable.

At the same time, a healthy Ken Griffey Jr. (hyperextended knee) would give the lineup another feared bat.

Like the Tigers, it's doubtful the Reds can maintain their early-season pace for the rest of the year. But Krivsky has a plan in place, and there's hope in Cincinnati.

MOST DISAPPOINTING AL TEAM: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Sure, injuries have hurt. The Angels are without their No. 1 starter (Bartolo Colon) and two everyday players (OF Darin Erstad and 1B Casey Kotchman).

But they also have been inept offensively. Never great at getting on base, the Angels this year have been putrid in that department, with a paltry .295 OBP. Only the Royals have scored fewer runs in the American League.

If they continue to struggle, it will be interesting to see how much turnover takes place in the lineup. A number of bright prospects -- catcher Jeff Mathis, second baseman Howie Kendrick, shortstop Brandon Wood -- aren't far away. But as one AL executive noted this week: "It's pretty hard to break in three players at once."

Getting Colon back will boost the staff, of course. But offense is the problem here, and with Texas playing surprisingly well and Oakland a traditionally slow starter, the Angels had better not wait too long to figure it out.

MOST DISAPPOINTING NL TEAM: Atlanta Braves
Is The Streak coming to an end? Is the Braves' run of 14 straight divisional titles in jeopardy?

It's too soon to say, but the Braves are already in trouble, a full eight games in back of the front-running Mets.

The problem, surprisingly, has been starting pitching, long the Braves' strongpoint. Three of their starters -- Tim Hudson, Kyle Davies and Jorge Sosa -- have ERAs above 5.00, which could be a sign the departure of Leo Mazzone is being felt.

The bullpen hasn't been much better. But these are the Braves, and we'd be foolish to count them out too soon.

BEST OFFSEASON AL ACQUISITION: Jim Thome, Chicago White Sox
Obtained for outfielder Aaron Rowand, Thome has rediscovered his health and power stroke, and in so doing, made the White Sox lineup that much more formidable, providing protection for Paul Konerko.

BEST OFFSEASON NL ACQUISITION: Bronson Arroyo, Cincinnati Reds
It's unlikely that Arroyo (5-1, 2.36) will continue to pitch this well over the course of the season. He is, after all, a 29-year-old journeyman on his third organization and came into the year with a lifetime .500 record. But there's no denying he's been the key to the Reds' turnaround and given their rotation a measure of stability.

WORST OFFSEASON AL ACQUISITION: A.J. Burnett, Toronto Blue Jays
Burnett already has been sidelined with elbow issues twice. Though neither setback was serious, they're a reminder of how much risk was involved in giving a five-year, $55 million deal to a pitcher with arm problems who has never won more than a dozen games in a season.

WORST OFFSEASON NL ACQUISITION: Juan Pierre, Chicago Cubs
Maybe last year's dropoff was a warning. Pierre has been fine defensively (witness his homer-robbing catch of Barry Bonds earlier this week), but a leadoff man with a .270 on-base percentage and an OPS of .563 has to be viewed as a massive disappointment.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.